The lions are back. Chicago needs to hear them roar.
The city’s royal felines summarized their thrones last week at the entrance of the Art Institute on South Michigan Avenue.
I was huddled over my extra-hot skim latte that morning at the Starbucks across the street. My companion looked up and exclaimed, “The lions are back!”
Pulling up on a flatbed truck, the legendary and newly restored Art Institute lions returned. The massive sculptures have stood guard at the museum’s entrance since 1894. The bronze cats were dispatched last month for a deep cleaning and wax job for the first time in decades. Now, they have summarized their iconic place as protectors of a venerable Chicago institution.
Not a moment too soon. They need to wake up that sleeping giant.
The Art Institute is now closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. Every Tuesday and Wednesday.
As the lions were being remounted, I observed dozens of would-be museum visitors climbing the steps to the entrance, only to find them locked, the museum dark.
I watched as they threw up their hands and retreated in puzzlement. There were locals, families, visitors from around the Midwest, the nation and abroad.
They must be wondering: How can a major institution in a city like Chicago be closed at the height of the tourist season?
On a recent visit to the museum to peruse its current Paul Cezanne exhibit, I looked forward to a leisurely lunch at the museum’s cafe and outdoor garden. It is one of the loveliest spots in the city in the summer.
It was “temporarily closed.” In fact, all three of the Art Institute’s eating establishments were closed.
“What are the ladies who lunch to do?” I asked.
“When we first reopened the museum after the onset of the pandemic, our audience was greatly reduced,” a spokesperson at the Art Institute told me. “Tuesday and Wednesday had historically been or least visited days by a significant margin, so we opted to close on those days to manage expenses.”
While visits have since increased, “we’re still significantly below normal levels and have no immediate plans to reopen on Tuesday or Wednesday. However, we have already begun to expand hours on Thursday evenings this summer. … Now we are open until 8 pm on that night. That decision was driven by our desire to increase accessibility, as well as visitor feedback.”
The museum is also planning a partnership with a new food and beverage vendor, “which will allow us to offer some dining options before the end of the year.”
We are still emerging from a historic pandemic. Many institutions are fighting staff shortages and skyrocketing costs.
The Art Institute claims to be a world-class museum. Its august galleries draw visitors from around the globe. If they happen to visit midweek, tough luck.
The lions must be embarrassed. They should be roaring in outrage.
The city’s premier art museum is an outlier among its Chicago peers. The Museum of Science and Industry, the Adler Planetarium and the Shedd Aquarium are all open seven days a week, according to their websites. Their restaurants are operating.
The Art Institute is not the only offender. The DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center, a vital community asset in Washington Park on Chicago’s South Side, is open 11 am to 4 pm five days a week.
The Art Institute, Chicago’s most celebrated cultural institution, sits on the city’s front porch. When it goes dark, it leaves a ragged hole in the fabric of our downtown ecosystem. Operating on a part-time clock sends the wrong message at exactly the wrong time.
Chicago desperately needs tourism and visitors. While some areas of the city are bustling with action, others now shut down by 9 pm, even on weekends.
Longtime downtown residents are putting their homes on the market and escaping to the suburbs and beyond. Florida is a favorite destination for Chicago expats these days. Just ask Ken Griffin, the departing billionaire.
We are burdened by the doomsayers who claim that this great city is sliding into an economic, social and cultural abyss. Years into COVID-19 and civil unrest, Chicago is still reeling from their disastrous effects.
Instead of going dark, we need more light. More than ever, we need the essential, sanity-saving graces of arts and culture.
On a lunch break or a rainy day, I have found many healing moments in the calming galleries of the Art Institute. When you need it, it needs to be there.
As we recover from the wounds of a pandemic, gun violence, civil unrest and political dysfunction, we need places of escape, peace and hope. Chicago needs those places to be open and not just because of the revenue and exposure they bring.
We need the lions to shake us out of our doldrums and tell us: Chicago can’t afford these off-hours.
Laura Washington is a political commentator and longtime Chicago journalist. Her columns appear in the Tribune each Monday. Write to her at LauraLauraWashington@gmail.com.
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